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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Polarized Partisans (Probably)

Three weeks ago, the Senate shelved its latest election-year effort to add a ban on gay marriage to the United States Constitution. The last such attempt occurred on July 14, 2004, fittingly the same day that political scientist Morris Fiorina’s Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America entered bookstores.
(Were I blogging about Jessica Alba, I would note that The Hollywood Reporter confirmed her participation in Fantastic Four that day. But the editors said they’d “get back to me” about starting a second blog on the website.)
Anyway, Fiorina and two additional credited authors proffered the thesis that while political elites have grown increasingly polarized on cultural issues, the general population remains moderate. Unfortunately, they argued, the elite polarization produces a dynamic where voters have few moderate options to choose from and where their real concerns go unaddressed.
A recent issue of The Forum – an online political science journal available at http://www.bepress.com/forum/vol3/iss2/ – explored Fiorina’s empirical claims. I will discuss other pieces in the issue in future posts; today I’ll just review the lead-off piece by Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders, “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? The Reality of a Polarized America.” (Volume 3, Issue 2 of the journal)
In Culture War?, Fiorina claims Americans are closely divided on cultural issues but not deeply divided. Abramowitz and Saunders confirm that most Americans are moderate. On an 11-point scale of ideology they constructed based on responses to sixteen policy questions, 6 (the midpoint) was the most common category, followed by 7 (slightly conservative) and 5 (slightly liberal). Nearly half of voters fell between 5 and 7 on the scale.
On the other hand, there were large gaps between Democrats and Republicans. While Democrats averaged 5 on the scale, the typical Republican scored 7.5. Thus, Republicans were more conservative than Democrats were liberal. Fully 78 percent of Republicans were scored higher than 6, while only 63 percent of Democrats were scored lower than 6. My own calculations indicate that this asymmetric polarization shows up if one looks instead at a 7-point scale measuring respondents’ self-identified ideology. While 80 percent of Republicans call themselves conservative, just 56 percent of Democrats call themselves liberal.
Also contrary to Fiorina’s thesis, Abramowitz and Saunders find that partisan polarization has increased notably since 1972, almost entirely prior to 1996. And the association between one’s party and one’s self-identified ideology and policy positions has steadily increased.
When Abramowitz and Saunders turn to geographical polarization, they find that the margins of victory in states have steadily increased since 1960 and that the number of competitive states – and the electoral votes they represent – has steadily declined. They also find, again contra Fiorina, that policy preferences differ markedly between solidly Democratic states and solidly Republican states.
Yet another of Fiorina’s claims – that polarization mainly revolves around economic interests – withers under Abramowitz and Saunders’s analyses. Instead, the authors show that religious beliefs and practices are more strongly associated with voting and partisan identification than standard socioeconomic indicators are.
Abramowitz and Saunders’s evidence is fairly compelling, although their analyses do not focus tightly on culture-war issues per se. Still, the values-laden issues they do examine fit the broader patterns they report. Like the legislators they elect, voters have become quite divided.

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